Domestic abuse has a devastating impact on children and young people that can last into adulthood. Domestic abuse services offer specialist emotional and practical support for children and young people affected by domestic abuse.
Are the effects the same for every child?
Children can experience both short and long term cognitive, behavioural and emotional effects as a result of witnessing domestic abuse. Each child will respond differently to trauma and some may be resilient and not exhibit any negative effects.
Children’s responses to the trauma of witnessing domestic abuse may vary according to a multitude of factors including, but not limited to, age, race, sex and stage of development. It is equally important to remember that these responses may also be caused by something other than witnessing domestic abuse.
Children are individuals and may respond to witnessing abuse in different ways. These are some of the effects described in a briefing by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (2004):
- They may become anxious or depressed
- They may have difficulty sleeping
- They have nightmares or flashbacks
- They can be easily startled
- They may complain of physical symptoms such as tummy aches
- They may start to wet their bed
- They may have temper tantrums
- They may behave as though they are much younger than they are
- They may have problems with school
- They may become aggressive or they may internalise their distress and withdraw from other people
- They may have a lowered sense of self-worth
- Older children may begin to play truant or start to use alcohol or drugs
- They may begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves
- They may have an eating disorder
Children may also feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless or confused. They may have ambivalent feelings towards both the abuser and the non-abusing parent.
Do children grow up to be abusers and/or victims?
The “cycle of abuse” otherwise known as the “intergenerational theory” is often referred to when considering the effects of domestic abuse on children; however research findings are inconsistent, and there is no automatic cause and effect relationship.
This theory is believed to be disempowering and ineffective when working with children. A boy who has witnessed domestic abuse does not have to grow up to be an abuser and a girl does not have to become a victim of domestic abuse later in life.
Educational programmes focusing on healthy relationships, and challenging gender inequality, sexual stereotyping, and domestic abuse, should be integrated with work on anti-bullying and conflict resolution as a mandatory part of the curriculum in all schools. These would act as important preventive measures.
How you can help your children
Most children appreciate an opportunity to acknowledge the abuse and to talk about what they are feeling.
Do talk to your children – and listen to them.
Try to be honest about the situation, without frightening them, in an age appropriate manner. Reassure them that the abuse is not their fault and that they are not responsible for adult behaviour.
Explain to them that abuse is wrong and that it does not solve problems.
Remember, your children will naturally trust you – try not to break that trust by directly lying to them.
Encourage your children to talk about their wishes and feelings. You could do this perhaps by doing an activity together, or encouraging them to draw or write about what is happening and how they feel about it. Your child’s teacher may be able to help you with this.
Sometimes children will wait until they feel safe and are no longer in the violent environment before they start to talk about their feelings.
You may believe it is best for your children if you try to keep the family together in order to provide the security of a home, a mother and a father. However, children will feel more secure and will be safer living with one parent in a stable environment than with two parents when the environment is unstable and abusive.
Adapted from Women’s Aid: until women & children are safe